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The men who could be King: the #QatarGP Press Conference

Title contenders? How many can you name on a grid with 33 World Championships between them…

It’s the night before first practice for the season-opening #QatarGP, and all through the venue talk is centered one two things: the contract renewal for Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) announced earlier in the afternoon, and the huge, tough competition lining up in 2018. In the Press Conference, Rossi was joined by Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) and Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar) as the curtain prepares to go up on the season.

Who will be fighting for the title in 2018?

All present are tough competitors to beat, of course, as is Rossi. The Italian contributes nine Championships to the 33 titles lining up in 2018 – an incredibl 27% of them. Marquez has six, Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) five, Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) three...asked about the deep field this year, the ‘Doctor’ says it’s historic.

“This season is the most balanced MotoGP season ever,” affirmed Rossi. “I look at the pace of the test here in Qatar and minimum, the guys sat here, plus Pedrosa, Rins, Crutchlow, Petrucci. I think eight, nine or ten riders can fight at the beginning! Over time it becomes less and less, but a lot of riders have the chance to win the first race.”

Naming less names, however, was reigning Champion Marquez. After the rider from Cervera didn’t count on facing down Andrea Dovizioso last year, the number 93 errs on the side of caution.

“It’s impossible to say,” smiled the six-time Champion, before explaining his reluctance a little more. “Last year I said four people - and one wasn’t Andrea! So it’s impossible to say. But all the guys who are here and of course…I believe in myself!”

With Marquez having won four out of the last five titles, that’s not misplaced confidence. And his key rival last season cited that record, but ‘DesmoDovi’ maintains that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Far from it…

Social Media Questions from the #QatarGP

“It’s very close,” says the Italian. “There’s a minimum five or six guys who can fight for the Championship. Anything can happen! Sure, in the last few years Marc has won, but I think it’s completely open.” Marquez also has a target on his back from Zarco – with the Frenchman calling the Spaniard the reference after his incredible record, and explaining a clear mission statement: “It will be many riders fighting for the Championship, but with Marc on the top, he’s the reference. So the target in the Championship is to beat him, because he’s the most consistent at the moment.”

Viñales, however, wouldn’t be drawn. Much like Marquez, the rider from Roses didn’t name names. “It’s difficult to say. I think the riders sitting here, and two or three more could be possible. This year it’s even closer and you have to be ready!”

Even closer is true, with 2017 having broken a host of records for closest top fifteen and top ten finishes. A lot of that is the regulations introduced to level the field more between Independent Teams and factory entrants – and if Zarco and Crutchlow aren’t enough names to be mentioned, Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar) also brought up compatriot Danilo Petrucci (Alma Pramac Racing).

“Factory riders,” began the ‘Maniac’. “And also some riders from Independent Teams – Petrucci, and also Zarco, have been really fast all through testing. For sure they’ll stay on top, and they’ll fight at the front in this Championship.”

There you have it – “the most balanced MotoGP season ever”. Do you have your own predictions? Take a punt here and see how you do once the curtain goes up. And be sure to tune in for the season-opening #QatarGP, with Free Practice beginning on Friday before the lights go out for the race at 19:00 local time (GMT +3) on Sunday.

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#QatarGP: Watch Thursday's Press Conference in full